Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXTS: Mark 6:1-13 and 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
[Jesus] … went to his home town accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue; and the large congregation who heard him were amazed … (Mark 6:1b, 2a) 1
The story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown is a classic. Most of us can identify with it, because it is a story that has happened to most of us. It’s kind of like a leading question too many of us—rather stupidly—persist in asking our spouses … or our children: “Why won’t you ever listen to me?”
And the reply is: “Because I know you!”
Whether they say it out loud or not, that is the reason! The people in our hometown know us all too well, and therefore they simply cannot believe that the boy who used to leave his dirty socks sitting on the kitchen table—or the girl who used to skip school to go hang around the mall—could really have anything worthwhile to say.
Consider the grumbling of the people in Nazareth when Jesus taught in their synagogue: “Where does he get it from?” and “What wisdom is this that has been given him?” and “How does he work such miracles? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2b-3)
And Mark goes on to say that they took offence at him (or, as the New English Bible has it, “they fell foul of him”). And as a result, Jesus was not able to do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.
Yes, Jesus was rejected by his own—and all because his own thought that they knew him. But there is more to this story of rejection, for the story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth is also a story about how we ignore and reject God. It is a story about our unwillingness to be helped by God—or by anybody else. It’s about an unwillingness which is born from our own arrogance—our supreme confidence in our own wisdom, and our own strength.
For the people who lived in Jesus’ home town, their knowledge of him as a youth prevented them from seeing God’s power in him as an adult. But for most of us, I think, the grace of God is shut out not because we know Christ so well, but because we think we know what is best for ourselves—and because we refuse to acknowledge that sometimes we need help. We don’t want to consider that our own understanding could be incomplete or faulty. We don’t want to believe that our own strength might be insufficient.
The road to spiritual wholeness is not travelled by exercising our human powers, but rather by acknowledging our human weaknesses, and then—in that weakness—allowing God to exercise his power in us. The Apostle Paul—like all of us—knew weakness. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he reveals that he was given a “thorn in the flesh”—“a sharp pain in my body which came as Satan’s messenger to bruise me.” He says he received this in order to keep him from “being unduly elated” by his extraordinary revelations and spiritual experiences; in other words, to keep his ego in check.
Paul does not tell us the precise nature of this affliction, and so a great deal of conjecture has sprung up. Some believe that Paul had severe migraine headaches. Others say it was a skin disease, or a crippled limb, or blindness—or even alcoholism. I think this speaks to the genius of Scripture: because this “thorn in the flesh” is unspecified, anyone with almost any sort of physical infirmity is able to identify with Paul.
Whatever it was, Paul tells us that—three times—he prayed for this affliction to be removed. And on the third occasion when Paul prayed, God answered him and said: “My grace is all you need; power comes to its full strength in weakness.”
Paul’s response is amazing. He says: “Hence I am well content, for Christ’s sake, with weakness, contempt, persecution, hardship, and frustration; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
“When I am weak, then I am strong.” To the world, this sounds like utter nonsense. Power and strength are practically worshipped by most people, and weakness is despised above all things. The world teaches us to conceal our vulnerabilities, lest we get hurt. It teaches us to hide our weaknesses, lest we be taken advantage of. The world teaches us to camouflage our inadequacies with self-confidence, self-reliance and self-assurance, so that we can build a heaven for ourselves here on earth. The world teaches us that we are the captains of our fate—that we can do everything on our own, and that we can find within ourselves all the answers—and all the strength—we will ever need.
But of course, this simply is not true. It is the deception of the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve; it is not the wisdom of God. Every dysfunctional person caught behaving in an offensive manner says that he knows better, and that he is on the way to overcoming the problem.
Certainly, our weaknesses, our hardships, and our tribulations are not blessings, in and of themselves. They are real problems for us. However, when we acknowledge our weaknesses and our needs, and turn to God and ask for his help—instead of relying on our own skill and wisdom and strength—then something profound happens: we discover that God’s grace is sufficient for us, and that his power is made perfect in our weakness.
When I am weak, then I am strong. Truth be known, we are weak in many, many ways—ways that all too often we are afraid to admit, because we fear that we will be scorned or rejected or judged or taken advantage of, somehow.
But that is not what must happen—especially for the believer. To me, it seems that—if we will allow his Spirit in—God comes to us and helps us. Our weakness may remain—as Paul’s “thorn” remained—but God’s power inhabits that weakness, and turns it into strength for us; strength for us to do what we are meant to do.
The story is told about how one day a small boy was trying to lift a stone that was much too heavy for him. His father—seeing the boy struggling—asked him, “Are you using all your strength?” The boy said that, yes, he surely was.
But the father replied, saying, “No, son, you aren’t—for you have not asked me.”
How much, I wonder, have we not asked God about? How much of our weakness do we keep locked up inside us, because we think that we are beyond help—or that there is no help for us? Or even, that we don’t deserve any help? Because we know that what we’ve done is so wrong, or so dishonourable—or so … just plain stupid—that we are ashamed to lift our eyes up to heaven.
And yet, the greater part of our help comes from our relationship with God—the God who is not only willing to forgive us—but also able and eager to help us.
Yes. God is eager to help us. That’s the whole reason he sent Jesus to rescue us. That was the entire point of the cross, my friends. That’s what Christ’s death and resurrection were all about. But first we must acknowledge our need for him, and ask him to take control.
Admittedly, that can be a difficult thing to do. For some of us—and perhaps for all of us, some of the time—relinquishing control can appear impossibly difficult. Sometimes we have to come to the brink of destruction—to a point far beyond even desperation … a point where our very souls cry out to God!
Carrie Underwood has a song about this. Maybe you know it. Probably, you have heard it:
Jesus, take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
Save me from this road I’m on
Jesus, take the wheel 2
Even so, please take the wheel, Lord. Your grace is sufficient for me, for your power is made perfect in my weakness.
1 Scripture quotations herein are from the New English Bible: © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press & the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961.
2 “Jesus Take the Wheel” Songwriters JAMES, BRETT / LINDSEY, HILLARY / SAMPSON, GORDY. Published by Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, WINDSWEPT HOLDINGS LLC, BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC